In Florida, IBEW members are mobilizing to help kill a proposed constitutional amendment that aims to deregulate the state’s investor-owned electrical utilities — a law that, if implemented, could disrupt the livelihood of thousands of electricians who work and live there
“Energy deregulation has been proven to be bad policy,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “It’s a dangerous idea that drives electricity prices up, reduces service quality and puts highly trained union electricians out of work.”
Last year, a political action committee called Citizens for Energy Choices (CEC) gained approval to mount a campaign to place a so-called “energy choice” amendment on Florida’s 2020 general election ballot.
“It would dismantle the affordable and reliable current electric grid and industry,” said Fifth District International Vice President Brian Thompson, “all to give electric utility market profiteers a chance to gain a financial advantage. Deregulation risks leaving electricity customers without reliable and safe providers.”
Proponents of deregulation typically sway skeptics by claiming that customers’ ability to shop for low-cost power forces providers to compete by offering better service at lower prices. But deregulated utilities also can more freely boost profits by charging customers higher rates.
Regulated systems must balance their right to make money with infrastructure and customer needs, justifying rate-hike requests before an oversight body.
“Energy rates in Florida already are among the lowest in the nation,” said Thompson, whose district includes the Sunshine State. “And we’ve got years of evidence that deregulation doesn’t work.”
Because of deregulation, thousands of jobs in the trades and other fields have vanished, with rates going up as infrastructure investments decline. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have some form of deregulation.
“It didn’t work in California, and it’s not going to work in Florida,” said Ed Mobsby, a Fifth District international representative who also serves as the state’s political coordinator. In the early 2000s, unregulated energy providers in California, such as Enron, manipulated the electrical grid to drive up prices. Statewide rolling brownouts and blackouts ensued, and IBEW members lost jobs by the hundreds.
In Florida, state law limits ballot summaries to 75 words, so one major challenge Florida’s IBEW activists face is revealing what CEC is leaving out of its summary. “It’s kind of vague, the way they’re describing it,” Mobsby said.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody agrees. “This unclear language fails to disclose that the proposed amendment would require enactment of laws prohibiting investor-owned utilities from owning, operating or even leasing any facilities which generate electricity and would prevent investor-owned utilities from competing in a new, electric utility market,” wrote Moody, a Republican, in a letter to the Florida Supreme Court.
“A lot of people that traditionally oppose labor and the trades are on board with us on this,” said Thompson, noting that Florida’s Republican-majority House of Representatives and Senate also have problems with the measure. A brief filed by the state’s Chamber of Commerce complains that complexities in the proposed amendment’s summary violate current law and could leave voters confused.
The summary also omits how the proposed amendment seeks to eliminate existing storm recovery agreements and resources critical in helping to restore power after hurricanes and other disasters.
Before the amendment proposal can be included on the November 2020 general election ballot, supporters must collect more than 766,000 valid signatures from registered Florida voters by Feb. 1.
“For now, we’re trying to keep it off the ballot,” Thompson said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but the good news is we’re getting started early and we’re already out in front of it.”
And even if the initiative makes it onto the ballot, it would still need to receive at least 60% of the state’s popular vote before gaining ratification.
“We’re hoping we’ll have enough information out there to let people make an informed decision before then,” Mobsby said. The main task for IBEW activists now, he said, is education and mobilization.
It’s worked before.
Using nearly identical ballot language, Citizens for Energy Choice tried to mount a similar constitutional campaign in Nevada, and in 2016, 75% of the state’s voters favored deregulation.
But after the IBEW’s on-the-ground educational campaign, two-thirds of the electorate there rejected it last November.
“We can use Nevada as a playbook to come at deregulation with a good grassroots effort in Florida,” said Thompson, who has regular conversations with IBEW leaders in that state.
“Our utilities are putting together a game plan, too,” he said. If the amendment was to pass, the electricity generation business for Florida Power and Light, Duke Energy and Tampa Electric — all IBEW employers — would disappear.
“We would lose jobs for sure,” said Thompson, adding that there also would remain uncertainty regarding power transmission and distribution.
“Electricity is a service, not a commodity that can be bought and sold to satisfy corporate greed,” said Stephenson. “We need all hands on deck in Florida to help voters understand this, before this dangerous amendment becomes a hard-to- repeal part of the state’s constitution.”
Visit fareflorida.org to learn more.